Becoming a student of your own life
Several weeks ago, I was home recovering from a cold. Unable to do much, I found a manila envelope filled with letters I wrote to my mother when I was in my early 20’s. She kept these letters, and returned them to me when she was cleaning out a closet. They were typed on onionskin paper or handwritten. This is how we communicated in the 70’s. We called each other rarely—long distance calls were expensive. Some letters were from when I was college, but most of them were from my early years in graduate school in San Francisco.
When she sent me the letters in the mid 1990’s, she enclosed a note--“I just spent 4 hours reading the contents of this envelope. I’m glad that I saved these letters because they point out so clearly how we are continually changing but in some ways stay the same. The occurrences I remembered very clearly were the intense loving experiences and the uncomfortable disputes. I must say that after reading our history of those years, I am filled with a sense of wonder. You loved me…no matter what big mistakes I made!! I’m too old to keep these letters now. They document your history and belong to you. Thank you for the joys you have brought me”. Her note, written 22 years ago, brought tears to my eyes.
Looking back. Living today. Pondering the future.
When we review the past, it’s as if we’re looking through a telescope. The small memories and details can barely be seen. All we see are the large events and experiences. When we scrutinize today, it’s as if we’re looking through a microscope. Every small detail is magnified and huge. It’s hard to discern what is really important. When we consider the future, we peer into a fog. We have no idea what will come our way.
Like my mother, many parents save their children’s cards, emails, and reports. Each one was precious at the time. Some well organized moms and dads make scrapbooks for their children! I printed out all of the email correspondence between my oldest daughter and I when she was in college. Her leaving home was such a big event in my adult life. I am sure that some day, like my mother, I will clean out my closet and give her back her printed emails.
Parents are students of their children’s lives. We watch them grow and develop with a sense of fear and awe. Hopefully, this scrutiny helps us become more thoughtful parents.
But it is equally important to be a student of your own life, studying your own growth and development over time. Looking back enables you to see yourself, moving through your life, noting the small and big changes that you made. We can see the many moments that helped define us and move our life trajectory forward. We can’t change anything that we did. But we can learn from our successes and failures. We can apply this knowledge (called wisdom) to the choices we make today.
Like my mother observed when she read my letters, it is interesting to consider what stays the same and what changes in each of us. What is inborn temperament, what characteristics are influenced by experience, and what changes do we set in motion?
The recent movie “Boyhood” addresses this question. It was filmed over 12 years, chronicling a boy, Mason, from age 6 to 18 years of age. During those formative years, we watch his family go through many changes—divorce, remarriage, alcoholism, and geographic moves. How does he emerge at the end of his childhood? It’s a reflective, contemplative film that reminds us of what’s important. Despite all of the trauma Mason experiences, he arrives at the doorstep of adult life as a deep and thoughtful person.
I love the last line of the movie, as he starts college, sitting on a bluff overlooking a vast landscape. His friend wistfully remarks—“People always think that it’s important to seize the moment. But I think, that more often, the moment seizes you.”
What do you think?